“Writing is easy,” the journalist Red Smith once claimed. “You just open a vein and bleed.”
That advice could just as well have come from Haruna Lee, who holds nothing back in Suicide Forest, the encore engagement of their gut-wrenching play about gender, sexuality, immigration, and trauma. (Lee uses they/them pronouns.)
Suicide Forest’s emotional power kind of sneaks up on you. In fact, at first, it seems like it might be a horror story, opening, as it does with Mad Mad (Aoi Lee, Haruna’s real-life mother, a butoh performer who puts her abilities to remarkable use), dressed in a blood-red robe, moving haltingly across a dark stage, releasing something like a death rattle as she goes. She is, we learn later, a kind of god, known for guiding humans on Japan’s Mount Fuji to their doom in the Suicide Forest—a real place, and indeed one of the world’s most-used suicide sites.
Then the lights come up, and just like that, it seems we’ve entered a surrealist comedy. The set, by Jian Jung, is simultaneously minimalist and maximalist: a room bedecked in pink and white candy stripes populated with just a few pieces of regal-style furniture. There we meet a salaryman and his friend—more masculine caricatures than people, really—the absurdity of their conversation accentuated by Eddy Toru Ohno and Keizo Kaji’s over-the-top physicality. The madness continues in the salaryman’s office, where his female colleague enters and unexpectedly seduces him, before turning randomly on a dime to dominate him.
Suicide Forest proceeds much in this manner, zigging and zagging from one reality to the next as in a nightmare, the transitions virtually imperceptible thanks to Aya Ogawa’s deft directing. This is how, suddenly, we meet the salaryman’s daughters, Miho (Ako) and Chiho (Dawn Akemi Saito)—teenage girls in Victorian dresses (staples of Japan’s Hime Lolita Kei subculture) played by women decades older, giggling and squealing and speaking in Japanese—no translations provided. Their friend Azusa (Haruna Lee) is with them, too, lying prone on a couch like a rag doll. When the girls leave, the salaryman crawls between Azusa’s legs and masturbates.
It’s a lot to take in rather quickly, but the sooner audiences surrender to this erraticism—and eroticism—the better: It only gets weirder, and more compelling, from there. (Think: a clan of rock climbing goats, a random karaoke interlude, and a game show that ends with a grown man in a diaper.) That’s because, like the best surrealist theater, its irrationality serves to demonstrate the horrifying, cruel, and senseless nature of the real world—one in which women are treated like dolls, men are incited to behave like pigs, and few can figure a way beyond the terror of it all.
The show is no less discomforting once the veneer of surreality is abandoned and the fourth wall is abruptly smashed. It’s here that Lee’s satirical bend gives way, and their vein, so to speak, fully opens up.
At one point, addressing the audience directly, Lee unleashes a stream-of-conscious, sexually explicit tirade, then aggressively interrogates their mother, who responds only in Japanese. It’s one of the more unsettling moments in one of the most unsettling plays you’re likely to see this year— and also one of the most rewarding. Like any proper nightmare, you’re unlikely to forget it.